I was recently looking through some photos from a winters ago and came across this one. What’s interesting to me about this photo is not composition or lighting or even that my buddy Mike is ripping here in my backyard. It’s that the snow is absolutely horrible. Wind-scoured, sun-burnt, old, crusty and inconsistent. That was a bad season here in the alps. While the US was getting hammered with record-breaking snowfalls we had a dry and sunny winter. We actually went 5 weeks in January and February with no weather. Just sunshine, blue-skies and no snow. It was nice, for sure, but it wasn’t winter. But through all that bad weather and all those bad conditions I still had a great season and my skiing got light-years stronger because I was out skiing in hard to ski snow and bad conditions.

Outdoor sports are like that. If you’re into the sport enough and you go frequently enough you will have days where the conditions are miserable. Days where you wish you’d just stayed at home. It’s inevitable: Given a long enough time-line and venturing far enough from the road you will be confronted with pissing rain, big lightning storms, terrible wind, bad snow and wet seeping rock at least a few times. And all of this got me to thinking about the gear that we choose to use. Outdoor gear has become something of a fashion trend. It’s extremely common to see Patagonia (Pata-gucci) on the streets in major cities, Arc’teryx and Mammut are about as close to Haute-fashion as you can get (with prices to match) and even Mark Zuckerburg can’t be seen in public without at least one North Face logo on himself. But when it comes to these terrible days outside this gear is the stuff that we depend on to save our skin. So, here are a few of my golden rules of gear selection that will keep you from looking like a poser but still leave you in full capacity to get the job done.

How to not suck in the mountains

  1. Light is right… to a point: Having light gear means you can move faster, using less energy. This is a good thing if you’re going to be going all day long. But there is a point at which the lightness of your gear can actually be a burden. The lightest skis on the market ski like wet noodles, the lightest jackets are going to explode in a shower of nylon the first time they touch stone, those “composite” avalanche shovels don’t have a hope in hell of digging through debris. A good rule of thumb is to find the lightest thing you can for the conditions that you are going to see 90% of the time then go one step up. Believe me, when you find yourself in those conditions that only happen 10% of the time, you’re going to be really really happy you’ve carried around a few extra grams.

  2. Bright Colors: Don’t be stupid. Why would you want a white jacket for skiing, or a grey jacket for rock climbing. Get a color that is bright and will stand out against the backdrop of your sport and season of choice. When your friends are running around like chickens with no heads looking for you in the avalanche debris having a red jacket or a yellow backpack could be the difference between you living or dying.

  3. Multi-function everything: I don’t ski with pole straps anymore. I haven’t for years. When something goes wrong the first thing you want to get rid of are those sticks with tiny anchors on the ends. But, unlike most of my skiing friends, I still have the straps attached to my poles. Why? I like to have a little extra webbing and a buckle incase I need to jury-rig something. There are lots of small things like that: my shovel doubles as a sled, so do my skis for that matter, I have a tiny little pocket knife clipped to my climbing harness, the list goes on. It’s important to make sure you’re gear can serve multiple purposes so that you carry less stuff, and still be covered for any eventuality. Think of it like the old scout motto, “Be Prepared”, only remember that being prepared and bringing everything and the kitchen sink are not the same thing.

    More multi-function + less stuff = Same level of preparedness

    This however does not apply to safety gear like avalanche probes–do not, under any circumstance buy ski pole probes.

  4. Don’t be a junk-show: Pack your crap inside your bag. Seriously–there is no need to hang your climbing shoes on the outside or tie your sleeping bag to the top. Fit it inside or get a larger backpack. And while we’re at it, pay attention to how you pack your gear. Keep the heavy stuff close and low (close to your back and low down in the pack). Make sure you can get to the stuff you’re going to need during the day. Common sense you say? Look around on the trail the next time you’re out–you’ll see what I mean.

  5. Details, details, details: Everything is a small detail until it’s a big fucking problem. Go over your stuff at home before you head out. Check for worn-out bits that might break, double check that you have all the little things that you are going to need and double check that you’re not packing stuff that you aren’t going to need. And for Christ’s sake double check the batteries in your head-torch. This also goes for taking care of stuff while you’re out. Tired and need a rest? Take one. A short rest now will keep you from bonking out later. Make sure you’re eating and drinking enough. Be disciplined. Like I said, it’s easy to gloss over all the little details until it’s a life and death mess that you have to sort out.

“If you don’t go, you won’t know”

That is quote from a good friend of mine. He used to use it whenever I’d be waffling over leaving the house or not (usually because of a bad weather forecast). I used to hate it but, over time, I slowly grew to love that phrase because some of my best days in the mountains have been days when the weather has been bad or the snow conditions were hateful. It’s important to get yourself into small trouble every now and again close to home so you’ll know what to do when you’re days from the road and something serious happens. You’ll also be surprised at how often a bad weather forecast is wrong and the weather is amazingly good. Leaving the mountains completely empty and you alone to enjoy them!